Article 33 of the Geneva Convention prohibits “collective punishment.” Simply put, it’s against the rules to punish someone for something they didn’t personally do. Makes sense at an innate level.
We understand basic fairness from the time we are babies. We cannot internalize cause and effect when we’re being punished for something that someone else did.
Instead, the cause and effect will shift away from the behavior being punished and toward something that makes more instinctive sense.
In other words, Johnny steals a candy bar and you smack him; Johnny (hopefully) learns he’s getting smacked because he stole something.
Stealing = pain.
Pain = bad.
Ergo, stealing = bad. Lesson learned.
But if you hit me because Johnny steals a candy bar, you may be hoping that Johnny will indirectly learn. Instead, I learn that you’re hitting me because you are a piece of shit.
You being a P.O.S. = pain.
Pain = bad.
You = bad.
Johnny didn’t learn jack shit today. I learned a lesson, just not the lesson you wanted me (or Johnny) to learn.
North Korea practices collective punishment, or more specifically, kin punishment, for political “criminals.” Step on Kim Jong-un’s toes, and he won’t just send you to a labor camp; he’ll send your parents and grandparents there. Your children and grandchildren will be born in that labor camp, too.
The Germans in the Middle Ages did something similar. They did it again during the Third Reich. It’s called sippenhaft, or “kin liability.” Lots of people did time (or died) in concentration camps just because they were related to someone who did something verboten.
Society doles out punishment, in part, to help hard wire cause and effect equations into our heads. “An eye for an eye.” The logic has been around forever. But when you punish someone for something they didn’t do, that hard wiring shorts out.
So, knowing that reinforcement of cause and effect norms doesn’t work when you punish the wrong person, why would a country ever use collective punishment?
It seems the only logical policy goal of collective punishment is deterrence.
It goes like this:
Step up against the government, and we’ll not throw you in the pokey, we’ll throw your whole damn family in with you. Now, what starts as a selfless and heroic revolutionary act, winds up as a self-centered destruction of your entire family line.
Put differently: if I’m living in a state-run nightmare, I might take up arms against the government. The basic calculus is, “win and they’ll erect statues of me; lose and I’ll get hanged.” Pushed to the limit, I might very well take that gamble.
However, I am a lot less likely to do that if the tyrants have made the consequences well known: “If I rise up and lose, I’ll get hanged, and so will my parents, grandparents, children, cousins, aunts, and uncles.”
Hell, it might even encourage my own family to prevent me from taking action against the sovereign. Uncle Jim’s getting chippy about the government. Should we let the entire family spend their lives in hard labor because of whatever nonsense Uncle Jim is spouting off?
Or maybe we “accidentally” toss Jimmy the toaster next time he’s taking a bath.
Collective punishment is, as such, a really effective tool of authoritarian regimes. The best way to fight a revolt is to keep the revolt from ever forming. If you can get the regime’s subjects to self-police, and muddy up the moral quandary for the would-be actor, the odds of the government getting overthrown trend pretty low.
But wait, this isn’t North Korea or 1939 Germany. We are not subjects, we’re citizens. And even though many of us see the tendencies at play, the President of the United States is not a totalitarian dictator (yet).
We have a constitutional right to speak out against the government. Some would say we have a sacred obligation – via birthright or oath – to speak out against tyranny.
But let’s just say an orange dude with bad hair and a penchant for self-aggrandizing wanted to shut down his critics. Let’s say such a man wanted to only hear the glorious refrains of his own echo chamber. After all, tyranny is so much easier than democracy…especially if you’re the tyrant!
What could Donald Trump do to make that happen?
Throw the entire cast of Morning Joe and all of their relatives in the slammer?
It’s true, collective punishment is hellaciously effective in keeping the tyrant’s bubble pleasantly sealed. But to be fair, creating DPRK-level collective punishment seems more like a culmination of generations of policy than a first step. So, our Dear Leader would probably have to start a little milder.
So, perhaps he could start down the path to tyranny by casting dispersions upon the media to undermine its “Fourth Estate” role in our society.
Maybe try calling the mainstream media “fake news” daily so his supporters receive each word they say with severe skepticism. Make his surrogates echo the same. Retweet articles from less objective sources. Give breitbart.com a seat in the pressroom, equating them with the New York Times. Cast venerable publications as “failing.”
Comment about blood coming out of Megan Kelly’s “wherever” when she’s demanding answers during a debate. Tweet sexist comments about Mika Brzezinski to the world. Make it clear that the more flattering portrait you paint, the better access you get. Create an institutional-level chilling effect on journalists’ “sunlight” instincts.
Reduce the number of press briefings. Forbid cameras and recording equipment in the briefing room. Refuse to call on journalists who ask too many tough questions. Help the journalists understand that grilling the press secretary will result in being ignored for weeks to come. Cause and effect.
Demand that all questions be submitted in advance, and then only publicly answer politically advantageous questions. Teach them that if you want access, ask flattering questions. Tyrants always control the narrative.
Negate his own surrogates’ defenses so the media (and the public) learns that his words are the only ones that matter. Show them that the only access that matters is access to the Donald himself.
Block individual citizens on Twitter when they grill him too aggressively. No self-respecting tyrant wants to be challenged, and social media makes “disappearing” enemies as simple as a mouse click.
Hold rallies to tout himself to those already in the cult, knowing that a presidential appearance anywhere will dominate the evening’s news cycle.
Host a televised Cabinet meeting and subtly invite the members to heap praise upon him. Bask in the sycophantic harmony. Reward the most adulating with increased access.
If that’s all working well, maybe it’s time to slip in a little collective punishment to see how it works.
Keep all of the journalists out of the White House for a few days to jab a particularly inquisitive reporter. Watch the journalists attack each other and begin to regulate their peers, a la “The Legend of Uncle Jimmy’s Bath and the Plugged-in Toaster.”
Slowly, the message crystalizes. Say the wrong thing, you’re out. Say it a few too many times, and your colleagues are out, too. Your career depends on access, and now the only legitimate access is access to the President himself. You want that access? Report what we tell you to report, take it at face value, and keep your peers in line. If you want to keep your career in the tyrant’s universe, you better toe the line the tyrant creates.
We are fortunate to live with about 500 years of philosophical, institutional norms built into our society. We inherited democracy and “Western ideals” from our Founding Fathers, who learned from Descartes, Locke, Newton, Smith, Voltaire, Rousseau, Machiavelli, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, just to name a few. “Come and Take It,” “Don’t Tread On Me,” and “Sic Semper Tyrannis” are in our DNA, whether we were born here or the promises of this nation attracted us to join.
Many of our compatriots are hypnotized by the flashy, gold plated “tough guy” act of Donald Trump. He is coarse, arrogant, boastful, and loud, and he “tells it like it is.” He’s a genius at branding, and he branded himself as the antidote to the wonky, gridlocked swamp that is Washington, DC.
Hate career politicians? Think Washington doesn’t understand the average American? Enter Morton Downey, Jr. No wait, I mean, enter Andrew Dice Clay. Shit, that’s not right, either…I mean, enter the test tube baby of those two guys plus Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera, Hulk Hogan, Dale Earnhardt, the Kool-Aid Man, Re-Run from What’s Happenin’, Ron Popeil, and Roy Cohn. Swirl it all around and make a baby, then have a racist New York slumlord half-ass raise him.
Oh, and then send him off to military school so he’s constantly in need of validation and love for the rest of his life.
Drop a dude like that into the middle of anything, and he’ll make waves. Our electorate wanted waves, friends, and waves we got. We’re all either cheering on his ludicrous antics, or gawking at the shit show like rubberneckers snapping pictures of a gnarly wreck.
The problem, of course, is that the same qualities that made him a potentially attractive change agent make him incapable of confident, self-assured, American leadership.
The incessant challenges of media scrutiny, co-equal branches of government, enemies foreign and domestic, competing internal factions, sleep deprivation, the opposition party, and the 63 million people that voted for the other candidate, take their toll on every person who ever sits in the Oval Office.
Donald Trump is cracking under the pressure. You can tell, because he’s doing what someone without an innate understanding of American constitutional democracy would do: he’s trying desperately to discredit and silence his detractors.
He’ll do anything to keep power, to maintain his self-image as a flashy billionaire, and to get petty revenge on any perceived enemy.
Try this thought exercise: If you aren’t 100% sure that he’s unfit for the American presidency, ask yourself: If he could do whatever he wanted, what would Donald Trump do to muzzle his critics?
Would he step up and try to win over his harshest critics?
Would he value their criticism as a sharpening tool and seek out more?
Would he meet them halfway and use compromise to gain their support?
Or do you suppose he would he seek out suppression and revenge instead? Do you think he’d throw journalists in jail if he could? If he could get away with it, do you think he’d consider getting revenge on his loudest enemies by tossing their spouses, children or parents in jail?
So far, Donald Trump appears to have more in common with Kim Jong-un than with the first 44 men who served as President. Thankfully, our norms and philosophical history keep him from running completely roughshod over freedom of the press. But make no mistake; he’s deliberately chipping away at it. Given his personality, he’ll keep chipping until he is stopped.
He’s tricking us all into normalizing these small abridgements to what should be absolute and presidentially endorsed latitude to write or say anything at all.
And if he could get away with it, I have zero doubt he’d throw the entire Fourth Estate and all of their relatives in a hard labor camp tomorrow.